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Eight is enough

PC Hardware | Tuesday, April 24th, 2007 | 10 years, 5 months ago

Over the past 8 years or so I’ve owned 3D accelerator video cards of varying performance, each supporting antialiasing but rarely capable of implementing it at an acceptable frame rate. Even my two recent powerhouse video cards, the Sapphire Atlantis 9800pro and the Asus GeForce 6600GT, were forced to sacrifice antialiasing in favour of 1280×1024 resolution for the new games of the time. This is no longer the case thanks to my uber-beefy BFG 7900GT – I play even the 0-day warez (not literally, of course) with antialiasing now.

Just how much has this silicon Jezebel spoiled me?

Isn’t it just fitting that I’m playing a game on Steam immediately following the recent break-in fiasco and subsequent denial thereof by Valve? Dreadful fear of my identity being pilfered aside, I’m having loads of fun playing Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines by the now defunct Troika Games. Now that I get the chance to replay after a few much needed patches it’s easier to see what a well-crafted and open-ended RPG it is. Despite it being the first licensed Source Engine game the eerily lifelike character design and motion-captured animations, plus the carefully crafted architecture combined with a sunglasses-at-night take on modern Los Angeles do a great job of obscuring the age of the framework.

It’s the game’s enormous yet sharp textures that left me wanting more. I was getting just about 60 frames solid at my monitor’s max resolution with the “setting cranked” (the only option in video preferences is a toggle for bump mapping) so before even watching the entire opening sequence I quit, forced 4x antialiasing at the driver level using the NVidia Control Panel, and started it back up. The result was quite pleasing.

And yet, it wasn’t good enough! Frame rates were still excellent at 4xAA so I decided to traverse the final frontier – 8xS antialiasing with 16x anisotropic filtering!! You’re positively melting as you read these words, I know.

Here’s an illustration of the difference between “vanilla” 4x antialiasing (left) and 8xS antialiasing with 16x anisotropic filtering (right). I recommend opening these screenshots in separate tabs or windows so that you can compare them fullscreen, switching from one to the other. The difference is quite dramatic:

vampire4xaanoaf-custom.png vampire8xaa16xaf-custom.png

It’s interesting to note that the screenshot at the left is a half-megabyte smaller than the one on the right, so one can imagine how much more work it must be to render in real time!

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Steam gets me sheepish

Video Games | Saturday, April 21st, 2007 | 10 years, 6 months ago

Naturally, immediately after I gave up on them (and after they changed my unanswered support ticket to “Resolved” for the fourth time) Steam finally replied to me. It took them nearly 60 hours but they replied. Their first reply was less than impressive:

Hello,

Thank you for contacting Steam Support.

There has been no security breach of Steam.
Please refer to the following Forum post for more information.
http://forums.steampowered.com/forums/announcement.php?f=14

We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.

There might be helpful information in this announcement, but I won’t know for another 6 days. Here’s my reply to them:

As you’ll note from my prior description and convenient screenshot, I’ve been banned from the forums. Thus this link does not help me.

2 hours later they replied again:

Hello Brian,

I apologize but I will be unable to lift the ban for your forum account.

There has been no security breach of Steam. The alleged hacker gained access to a third party site that Valve uses to manage the commercial partners in its cyber cafe program. This cyber cafe billing system is not connected to Steam.

We are working with law enforcement agencies on this matter, and encourage anyone with more information to email us at Catch_A_Thief@valvesoftware.com.

I’d used the forums for the first time yesterday to simply acquire the information Valve finally provided me in this support ticket update, over 60 hours after my initial question. The words of my infuriatingly rational girlfriend, and of one of my readers, Mick, rang in my ears as I pondered what to write in reply:

Thank you for the clarification. That’s all I ever wanted.

I don’t know whether my support tickets were flagged “Resolved” by some automated means. If this was the case then I apologize for my impatience. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that the risk of identity theft has affected me.

Regardless, I hope Valve will consider making a public statement much sooner the next time something like this happens.

Thank you for your assistance. Perhaps I can trust Steam again in the future.

So in the end I’m torn. It’s too soon to make up my mind, I figure, on whether Steam is trustworthy. Their support certainly leaves much to be desired. Time will tell whether their credit card databases were breached. Until then I’ll continue keeping an eye on my account.

Was I justified in my anger? I think I was, but I’m my own worst influence so I can’t really trust my own opinion.

Is Steam trustworthy? Maybe. Probably. It’s a unique service with a very limited catalogue of games, but the games they feature are difficult to obtain by other means. I think I still trust Steam more than, say eBay, but that ain’t saying much. Am I a hypocrite if I continue buying from them? Do I need to concern myself with that?

Regardless, I’m a little relieved to hear Steam proclaim there was no security breach. I don’t entirely believe them at this point but my currently unmolested credit card account corroborates their story as of now.

More on this in the future, perhaps. Finally I agree, for the first of 5 times, that my support ticket is resolved.

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Steam gets me steamed

Video Games | Friday, April 20th, 2007 | 10 years, 6 months ago

–UPDATE–

Readers, please note that this story describes my experience and immediate feelings about one Steam issue which was resolved shortly thereafter with no harm to me nor any other customers. Please note the date this was published and know that I’ve gone on to spend hundreds of dollars as a happy Steam customer. Steam isn’t perfect but in my opinion it’s a better alternative to retail stores who are completely inflexible for matters such as returns.

–END UPDATE–

My readers know that it’s been my pleasure to talk about Valve’s electronic games distribution system, Steam, in a positive light this past year or so. They’ve offered me the convenience of purchasing games without leaving my chair, they’ve enabled me to preload games so that I may play them the moment they are released, and they refunded my money when a game refused to work for me. All in all Steam has provided me unmatched service and convenience and I’ve considered them kings among retailers.

Until today.

Word on the grapevine is that Steam, or possibly a third-party intermediary, has been breached and credit card information is currently in the possession of a malicious individual. I first read about this on Digg, which is more of a sewing circle than a reputable news source, so I took it with a grain of salt. Still, I opened a support ticket with Steam Customer Support to verify:

I read a distressing article today claiming that Steam’s databases were broken into and credit card information was stolen:
http://emp.damage-web.net/viewtopic.php?p=62590

Is this true? Do I need to cancel my credit card? Please advise ASAP!

A lot happens in 18 hours. Stories propegate, rumours amplify, and service tickets go unanswered. All of these were the case in this situation. Thus, I followed up on my Steam support ticket:

Do I really need to tell you that this urgent question is time-sensitive?

http://digg.com/gaming_news/Valve_Hacked_Your_Info_may_be_at_risk

As you can see this issue, rumour or otherwise, is public knowledge and widespread. Valve’s lack of a statement on this is very conspicuous. Please confirm or deny this story so that I can rest at ease.

I then scoured Valve’s user forums for some clue of what was happening. I found a single post on the subject and succintly expressed my displeasure with Steam’s lack of disclosure.

The next morning, having received many replies to my comment on the Slashdot story, I was reminded to check in on my ticket status. I was very, VERY disappointed with what I saw:

steamsucks-custom.PNG

Steam had the audacity, the bat-shit insanity, to consider my support issue resolved without having contacted me at all!!

Furious, I sought to express my concerns on the Steam forum post I’d contributed to the preceding evening. I included a link to the above screenshot.

Less than a couple of minutes later my post was gone. Gone.

I posted again, making my incredulity of this Nazi-esque whitewashing (though I phrased it much more gently), and again my post was deleted, but not before someone replied, disqualifying his words from the flow of the conversation. I hit the back button and clicked Submit to repost my message. I then sought to retort the harsh criticism of the individual who challenged my arguments, and was cheerfully greeted with this message:

steamsucks2-custom.PNG

I’d been banned for a week.

I completed my undergraduate college program in network administration with a supplementary specialization in security. The hot topic during my Intro to Network Security class was the theft of the greater portion of the source code for Valve’s half-a-decade-in-the-making Half Life 2. A cracker somehow installed a remote desktop trojan on a Valve employee’s work PC which granted him unchecked access to the company’s file servers. The individual helped himself to several games and a big chunk of the Source Engine’s code tree. By the time Valve become aware it was too late. The damage was done and Valve spent the next year delaying the release to rewrite the code.

On another occasion someone posted several messages on the official Valve website as founder Gabe Newell, having guessed his password, “GabeN”.

Imagine the leap of faith I took when I finally bought Half Life 2, and went on to purchase many games over Steam. I’d trusted Valve to have learned from their mistakes. What an idiot I was. Those who ignore history…

As of now the only “official” word I’ve heard on this topic is an appended update to a third-party news story insisting that, despite the infiltrator’s own declarations, not Steam but a third-party partner had been breached. I am forced to weigh this announcement against all the neglect and whitewashing I’ve experienced first hand. My instincts tell me Steam has much to hide, and is desperate enough to do so at the cost of their already shoddy reputation. I’ve described all the variables in this equation in this blog article so I see no other logical explanation.

In summation, Steam is unethical, cowardly, and does not care one tiny iota about my safety, wellbeing, peace of mind, or patronage. Thus I will offer them none of these things again. I will reluctantly purchase any Half Life products they release, because I love that series, but I will do so in brick-and-mortar stores and probably assign them to a dummy Steam account.

The PC games industry looked to Valve as a beacon; a fearless icebreaker forging a path through frozen, inhospitable, foreign waters, and they were making real progress. At the first sign of danger Valve put its tail between its legs, rolled up in a little ass ball, and meekly batted away all questions with its little paws. Not much of a role model in my books.

Yet another strike against this troubled publisher and developer. What’s the count, ump?

Narcissist that I am, Steam’s public face is of no interest to me. All I know is that I’m done with them. If Valve is so inept as to drop the ball while dealing with supposedly false accusations, how on earth can I trust them should a real calamity ensue?

Sayonara Steam.

— UPDATE —

Steam has closed my support ticket yet again without contacting me, and again considered the matter “Resolved”.� I’ve just emailed Gabe Newell in a calm and factual fashion in the hopes of helping him empathise with his customers.� If you are a Steam customer and this matter is of concern to you I advise you to do the same.

Email Gabe Newell here.

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